Monday, October 12, 2009

Better Than DisneyWorld

Ok, I hope you're reading this during lunch, or maybe over your morning coffee, because this may take a while.

I know, you're thinking that my posts are already pretty long as it is.  I'm just trying to give you all your money's worth.  Besides, I spent so many years reducing every thought, argument and idea to a bullet point on a powerpoint presentation, that I'm relishing the freedom of actually writing in complete sentences and paragraphs.  I know we are living in the age of the Tweet, but what I have to say is longer than 140 characters.  Deal with it.  If you want your food comedy pithy, read a Bazooka Joe comic.

We've got two major events to cover today.  One is our weekend in the Hamptons (ooh, I know, the fancy place; don't worry, we'll get there.)  But first (I feel like Julie Chen on Big Brother.  "Up next, we'll show you what happened when we drop a live Cobra in the house; BUT FIRST, twenty minutes of footage showing the houseguests making a sandwich.")

But first: my visit to the Food Network.

This was a dream come true - a behind-the-scenes tour of TV's Food Network - it was like going to Disney World and being shown how the rides work.  I felt like one of those Make-A-Wish kids.  Without, you know, the terminal illness.

Anyway...about three years ago I took an acting class (this is the one where I met my friend Suzette) and two of the girls in the class worked in production for the Food Network.  One of them, Olivia, has been great at keeping in touch.  We'd been exchanging emails lately, and were planning to get together and grab lunch or coffee.  Instead, she offered me a tour of the Food Network offices and studios, an opportunity I leaped at with roughly the same energy as someone being offered, say, a pile of cash.

I arrived in Chelsea Market and took the elevator up to where the office suites are located.  Tess, the receptionist, greeted me warmly and let Olivia know I had arrived (and was being entertained by the TV in the lobby, which was airing Rachael Ray.  Yes, she was making a hamburger.  I know.  But this is a nice story, so shut it.  We're letting it slide.)

Olivia met me and walked me through a small cube farm, and over to the recording and editing rooms.  I got to meet the voiceover guy (you've heard his voice.  He's the guy you hear on the commercials booming in a deep, dramatic - yet playful - baritone, "On the season finale of Chopped, the chefs grapple with a slimy surprise ... and one will be crowned the winner."  I also got to see upcoming commercials being edited.  I can't tell you what I saw, but let's just say that - with Halloween approaching - there's a whole lotta candy coming to your television set.  My teeth hurt just watching.

From there we headed up to the studios.  First she showed me one of the kitchen studios (Studio B - don't you LOVE the jargon?  Me too!), a simple set where a lot of test screenings and rehearsals are done.  This is the room they used to choose the finalists for The Next Food Network Star.  Beyond
that lay the test kitchens, where they try out recipes.  They also use this set on shows like Throwdown! with Bobby Flay.  The kitchen was abuzz with activity for the New York Food and Wine Festival, which was kicking off that evening with a reception in Studio A (Don't worry, we'll get there.)

This is where I debate telling you that, despite a huge kitchen full of food, I witnessed the arrival of ten takeout pizzas.  No shame.  I've been known to spend an hour and half grocery shopping, spending over $100, only to get home and be too tired to turn anything I've purchased into dinner.  This is when I order take out chinese.  No shame. (OK, maybe a little.  I mean, if I went to visit the Cartoon Network - which would be totally fun! Does anyone out there work for the Cartoon Network?  Can you get me in? Sorry - tangent.  If you went to the cartoon Network and they were all watching Live from Lincoln Center or Wall Street Week, it would be kind of disorienting, right?  Or if you went to Fox News and they were all watching gay porn.  Yeah, that one would be awesome.)

The kitchen was largely populated by chefs you don't see on air, and I immediately began to understand that it took a lot more staff then just the on-air talent to turn out the food.  After all, many of those dishes get shot in several stages of completion (not everything goes from start to finish over the duration of a show.)  I was hoping for a glimpse of one of the stars ... maybe Guy Fieri (doesn't he look like he'd be a LOT of fun) or Giada ... but I had to settle for Anne Burrell.  I've never seen her show, but I was impressed to find her actually in the kitchen cooking with the rest of the crew.  I didn't say hello, because I didn't want to interrupt her work, but she seemed really nice.  (She also seemed to have unusually large, strong man-hands.  No shame.  I throw like a girl.  No shame.)

Then I got to see Studio A - the main studio.  This is where they film shows like Iron Chef (don't you LOVE Iron Chef?  And did you realize The Chairman had such a great body before he started wearing spandex on Dancing With the Stars?  He can slip me a secret ingredient whenever he wants, if you know what I mean.  And I know you do.)  It's a large set which can be modified in several different ways, and on my visit it had been turned into a large, art deco-style room to host the reception.

After the studios we headed back through the offices and Olivia walked me past the executive suites.  This was AWESOME.  I met the Executive Producer of Chopped.  This show has totally grown on me. Have you seen it?  It's a very simple concept: four professional chefs have to make an appetizer, an entree, and dessert.  At the end of each time-limited course they serve three judges (usually notable NYC restaurateurs like Chris Santos or Alex Guarnaschelli, who I totally want to go drinking with) and chef who cooked the dish the judges like the least is eliminated (get it? They're chopped.  Hee.)  The best part is that, for each course, the chefs get a basket of ingredients they must feature in their dish, and it's always random stuff that doesn't seem to go together, like sea urchin, grape jelly, and corn tortillas.

I also got to meet the Senior VP of Promotions and Special Programming, the Senior VP of Programming (Bob Tuschman - you've seen him on The Next Food Network Star) who may be the nicest, most accessible person in cable television, and Susie Fogelson - also from The Next Food Network Star - who is as smart and kind in person as she comes across on television.  We totally bonded over the recipe this season's winner, Melissa D'Arabian, made in the finale.  It's called four-step chicken and you can find it here.  It's a versatile go-to recipe I've easily made three times since seeing it - each time changing the sauce or the protein to suit my taste.

Oh - I forgot.  We also had cake.  I know - isn't this the BEST day?  Apparently, chefs and food manufacturers send their stuff to the Food Network all the time, I guess the hope being that the folks at the Network will find it so irresistible, they'll show up with a camera crew and transform that little pizza place, taco stand, or pudding shop into a sensation.  A woman with a bakery in Tyler, Tx has been sending cakes on a regular rotation, and Olivia and I had a slice. Something with a cinnamon cream.  Now my teeth really do hurt.  Lady, I don't know who you are, but when your cake makes a Cinnabon look restrained by comparison, you need to seriously cut back on the sugar.  I'm just saying.

Still - is that not an awesome day - a tour, face time with execs, and cake at the end?  And - can I tell you - everybody was in a good mood.  You know how, in your office, people might hibernate all day?  Or everyone's so busy that they're constantly running from a meeting to a conference call and always seem too hectic to have a conversation?  Not at the Food Network.  I met four executives and not one of them made me feel like they were rushing off to something more important - and these folks were hosting the biggest Food and Wine Festival in NYC in less than eight hours.

After such a blissful experience, you'd think I could just savor it and let it go.  But no.  Afterwards I thanked Olivia with flowers, but also sent my treatments to two of the executives I met, not realizing that they can't read submissions from anything other than national production companies.  So I managed to take a high-class experience and stomp my middle-class suburban clumsiness all over it in my endless quest to become a television food personality.  No risk, no reward, I guess.

Before I move on to our weekend in East Hampton, can I please pause to comment on Levi Johnston, the former almost-son-in-law of the former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin.  After a sterling contribution to Vanity Fair, written one his own and showing off that stunning fourth-grade vocabulary, Mr. Johnston will be showing off a few other things.  He's been offered a national ad campaign for Wonderful Pistachios, as well as a spread in Playgirl.  Guess we'll all have ample opportunity to see Levi's nuts.

(I generally resist the cheap one-liners, but this was WAY too easy.)

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

On Saturday, Neil and I took the train out to visit our friends Mark and Todd (from the cruise?  and our dinner party?) at their home in East Hampton.  We were greeted with a delicious lunch of roasted corn and tomatoes, herbed potatoes, and salmon-avocado tea sandwiches, served with a delicious cocktail of fruit juices, fresh cranberries and gin.  (If you're hoping for a recipe, here's where I tell you that I don't give away my friend's recipes.  Instead, I'll offer you one for a gin drink I love: equal parts elderflower and gin, pour over ice, add club soda (6 oz) and lemon slices.  If you're fancy, rim the glass with sugar.  If you're me, that just slows you down.

After lunch and a swim in the pool (yes - in October! - heated to a womb-like 90 degrees) we curled up with the Blu-Ray version of The Wizard of Oz.  I know, measuring gayness on a scale of 1-10, this is a 45.  Whatever.  It's so crystal clear you can almost smell the drugs and alcohol on her breath.  And did you know the witch's guards were green?  I always thought they were blue.

Saturday evening saw us all invited out for drinks, then to a dinner party.  Drinks were out near the golf course, in one of the estate areas.  Mark drove us around a bit beforehand, and we got to see Martha's house, as well as the complex where Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, has a home and a studio (where they film her show.)  It was like my Food Network Tour, Part II!

Apparently both ladies have opened their homes to Open House, the tour of homes held every year as a fundraiser, which Mark and Todd have brought their parents to in past years.  I'd love to be able to do that, but if I took my mother to Martha's house she'd probably steal soaps from the guest bath as a souvenir. ("What?!" she'd say, as if I were the one acting mildly insane, "they expect you to steal them!" This is the rationale I've heard several friend use when eating out of the bulk bins at Whole Foods.)

Seriously - this is what I come from - so it's a bit of an uphill climb to wish for an lifestyle empire like Martha's, complete with a home on something called Lily Pond Lane.  Yes, it is seriously called Lily Pond Lane.  I may have acquired a certain amount of class and breeding, but I'm afraid - no matter how much I ever earn - any home I ever manage to buy in the Hamptons is much more likely to be located on Gum Wrapper Drive or Pizza Crust Place.

Anyway, you'd think that, after Martha and Ina, we'd wind up at a home a little more modest.  But, no.  Mark turns the car into a driveway blocked off by a gate (yes, a fucking iron gate) and already every insecurity in my body is firing on all cylinders.  When we round two bends and the multiple-building complex comes into view, I become quite nervous.  I haven't eaten anything since lunch, and liquor + empty stomach + feeling of gross inadequacy have a tendency to equal embarrassing conversation. I will need to exercise great self-control to get through the hour or so we'll be here without babbling like a fool,  using foul language, or passing out in the bathroom.

The only point of reference I can give you for this house is to tell you to imagine Tara with contemporary interiors selected by a middle-aged gay couple.  Oh, and the backyard - from what I could tell - made the same impression as the manicured gardens of the Wynn Las Vegas.

Our hosts, however, were lovely.  I made it through cocktail hour without spitting, sputtering or spilling anything on a sofa that probably cost more than our home.  And though my ego were bruised, it was largely intact, and I sloughed off for later an examination of all the places I went wrong in my life.

Besides, it was party time.  After cocktails we headed over to a dinner party at another couple's home.  And - since the food was catered - I can whole-heartedly recommend Luigi's of East Hampton.  Farfalle with Shrimp (which is hard to pull off in a chafing dish for 30 guests) which was absolutely delicious, the shrimp firm and garlicky, the farfalle well-seasoned; Orrechiette with sausage and broccoli which would have benefited from a little more seasoning, some fresh herbs, and a better temperature on the sausage; and Chicken Florentine - spinach, mushrooms and mozzarella - which was outrageously good.  Throw in a big green salad, and some antipasto that our host, Patrick prepared, and 30 gays were well fed.

You know, for all the talk of gay men not eating anything, those queens plowed through the cheese and sausage (no jokes) and all three entrees.  And left nary a crumb behind.  And still ate dessert.

Dessert...oh, how to tell you about dessert.  So, the deal was that every party that showed up was responsible for a dessert.  There were brownies (Neil liked them, but I thought they were too wet; neither cakey nor fudgy, just wet like clay.)  There was a red velvet cake (made with way too much food coloring, but very tasty.)  There were come cream puffs (brought, no doubt, by some with a sense of irony, or at least a fondness for bad puns.)  And then there was the sand castle cake.

This was our contribution.

While we were watching The Wizard of Oz, Mark began to prepare a bundt cake.  Just as he was nearly done with the batter, he cracked a rotten egg right into the bowl.  While I, personally, would have loved to bake it, serve it and seen what happened - I realize I'm a bitch and kept that idea to myself.  Instead, he began again, from scratch.

More successfully this time, the cake made it through preparation, into the oven, and was cooling on the counter long before she clicked those heels together.  After the movie, Todd went to prep the cake for transport, flipping the cake pan over.

And releasing half a cake.

Now,  this is where I admire kitchen resourcefulness, so grab a pen, home cooks, and take notes.  Continuing on undaunted, he removed the remainder of the cake from the pan, assembled the two pieces together, and decorated the cake with turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw) and seashells.

Now, you can argue that the cake looked like a castle under attack, but it just as easily looked convincingly like a child's sand castle and had a charming, unrefined quality to it.  (Neil certainly thought so, offering compliments.  Of course, two weeks ago when I over-toasted the leftover garlic bread and melted cheese to cover any charring, he cut his eyes at me and fixed his lips in a purse of disapproval.  I pointed out that this was a similar fix, but he wasn't having any of it.)

And - most importantly - that cake was delicious.  Easily the best dessert of the bunch.

Sunday brought a lazy morning with the NY Times, an asparagus and gruyere frittata on wilted arugula, and lots of fresh hot coffee.  Later, the four of us went to visit our friend Mike and the couple that was hosting him - Rob and Robert.  Another gorgeous home (ego: deflating) and another fabulous meal: the Barefoot Contessa's recipe for Chicken and Biscuits.  You can find it here, but do as our hosts did and replace the homemade biscuits with one of those Pillsbury tubes where the gooey, gluey dough pops out when you press on it.  Much easier and a similar enough effect.

Well that's the weekend folks, but before I go I should probably close the loop on something.  I realize I'm making a lot of jokes about my ego taking a hit.  It's true, and the jokes are a defense mechanism.  I walked away from a life that could have given me that because it made me unhappy.  It took me until 36 to realize that it wasn't my responsibility to work that made me miserable simply because I was good at it, or because other people wanted me to.  I chose to pursue my dream, and I'm lucky just to have the opportunity to do that much.

But I'll make it happen, too.  By hook or by crook you'll read more by me someday, and you'll see me on your television.  And when I can afford one of those homes, you can find Neil and I in a village cottage like Mark and Todd's.  Filled with their passions like great food and good cookery, old movies and interesting art, warm memories of a life spent together and a lot of love.  More than an estate or a modern new house, Neil and I were both really touched by a beautiful home shared by two beautiful people.

And when we have one, you're all invited.

Just keep your eyes open for Gum Wrapper Drive.



DO THIS, New York:

Watch the Food Network.  I love the competition stuff like Chopped and the Next Iron Chef, but you can get some damn good recipes, especially from Giada and Tyler Florence.

Send someone flowers.  They'll feel great; you'll feel great.  It's a huge win-win.

Make four-step chicken, chicken with biscuits, and a nice gin cocktail.  There aren't many warm autumn days left before it's brandy and fireplaces folks.

Eat at Luigi's.

Bake a cake.

DON'T DO THIS, New York:

Don't be afraid to make a mistake in the kitchen - many are fixable.

Don't judge yourself my someone else's achievements (an old saw, but worth remembering.)

Don't pose nude for Playgirl.  As long as you're going Full Monty, might as well do hardcore porn.

What?  I'm just saying.

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